Philae, the intrepid probe that landed on Comet 67P, has electrified the public in a way that we haven’t seen since the NASA rover Curiosity landed on Mars.
Renewed enthusiasm for space exploration couldn’t come at a better time for the American aerospace industry. We find ourselves in the middle of a transition from the government managed Space Shuttle-era to a brave new world of rocket launchers and spacecraft designed, built — and sometimes entirely funded — by private enterprise.
Transition from Sovereign Funded to Private Enterprise Space Travel Has Been Rocky
It’s probably fair to say the transition has not gone as smoothly or as rapidly as one would’ve hoped. At a time when international relations with the Russian Federation are sinking to frigid cold war levels, NASA is still dependent upon the Russians for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). At the end of October, the launch of an unmanned rocket by a NASA private contractor, Orbital Space Corp., exploded just seconds after liftoff from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The lost 4,883 pound payload included scientific experiments from schools as well as food and supplies for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
As it turns out, the core of the Antares rocket which exploded is based on a late 1960s Russian rocket. And we don’t just mean the design dates back nearly 50 years, we mean the rocket parts are literally vintage USSR productions from the 1960s. And purely private spaceflight suffered a blow later that same week as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke up in midair during a test flight high over the Mojave Desert, killing one pilot. Despite Sir Richard Branson‘s enthusiasm, it’s unclear how many well-heeled enthusiasts will pop for a $250,000 trip into space to experience just a few minutes of weightlessness.
Who are the Space Pioneers of Tomorrow?
Given the setbacks of October, the success of the Rosetta and its Philae comet probe couldn’t come a moment too soon, as these are critical years for recruiting new young engineers into the field. But since we now live in a world where game apps like MineCraft, WarCraft and StarCraft top the charts, can actual spacecraft ever capture the attention of today’s digital generation? It’s a critical question as the very last of the old-school engineers retire in droves — and it’s uncertain if the talented minds of the new digital generation — just now entering university or starting their career paths — will pursue aerospace as a career with a similar enthusiasm and dedication.
Poster Child for a New Wave of Space Explorers
13-year-old Alyssa Carson from Baton Rouge, Louisiana may be the exception that proves the rule. With a passion that belies her young years, Carson has attended NASA Space Camps and has plotted out a career path, which she hopes will take her to Mars. Sensing a good PR story, NASA is fully on-board with their young protégé, whom they have given the call sign “Blueberry”. You can learn more about Carson by watching this short film by the BBC.
Philae Makes the Scene, Well Played and Well Marketed
Our spirits soared at the ambitious and improbable ten yearlong chase of Comet 67B across the solar system. Intercepting the comet itself is an astounding feat, but then to deploy the small Philae lander onto the surface really makes science-fiction come true. As we know now, there were problems with the landing of Philae. It bounced many kilometers back in the space at least twice before coming to rest on its side in the shadow of a crater, which blocked the rays of the sun for all but an hour of the day. But we really have to acknowledge what an accomplishment it was to get the lander onto the surface of Comet 67B at all. With the comet’s very weak gravity, Philae weighed the equivalent of a single sheet of paper! Now replay the landing in your mind and try to imagine landing a single sheet of paper onto the surface of a moving comet — it’s not that easy!
Fortunately, it looks like many of Philae’s scientific experiments were conducted using the main battery supply before the electricity supply on board ran out. Without enough sun to recharge the batteries, the probe went into a deep sleep. There’s still hope that as the comet comes closer to the sun, the sun’s rays might once again power up the solar collectors and allow Philae to wake up again. The European Space Agency (ESA) has teased us with some preliminary scientific observations. The first is the surface of Comet 67B is much harder than anticipated. As it turns out, the bounced landing (which precluded shooting harpoons to anchor Philae to the comet’s surface) may have been a blessing in disguise.
It’s quite possible that the harpoons would not have been able to penetrate the hard surface — and launching them might have resulted in sending Philae far out into space once and for all! Aside from an unfortunate incident caused by a racy shirt worn by one of the European scientists, the web team at ESA has conducted a pitch perfect media campaign around the Rosetta comet exploration project. The Philae lander’s Twitter account is a great example, with its gentle humor:
ESA’s Rosetta blog has also created a media firestorm with the tantalizing announcement that Philae may have detected organic compounds on Comet 67B. What does this mean exactly? We think it could mean that Philae’s COSAC detector discovered (or “sniffed”) some carbon ring-based molecules, presumably outgassing from the comet’s surface. Many news articles published today have extrapolated this to mean that organic life forms have been found — this is not supported by the information released by ESA to date.
When are We Going to Know Something More Concrete?
It looks like we’re going to have to wait until the the upcoming American Geophysical Union Conference in San Francisco! That’s when and where the European Space Agency plans to do their first in-depth debriefing on the mission. Mark your calendars for Dec 15-19, 2014. We will certainly follow up on this story as it develops. We will also look at NASA’s upcoming rendezvous with Pluto in January, a crowd-funded Lunar exploration mission organized in the UK, as well as the late-breaking news that Airbus will become a contractor working with NASA as part of a greater cooperation between the European Space Agency and NASA. We’re also interested in cleaning up space junk as well as the story behind a curious Russian spacecraft which has Western military experts concerned.
Space: The Final Frontier. Formaspace Can Help.
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